I imagine a scene, long ago, in the town of Corleone, in the heartland of Western Sicily.
I see Doctor Michele Navarra (right). A classic valetudinarian; a sensitive and haunted expression playing across his features. The face of a man who had sold his soul to the Mafia and the devil for an excellent price, as English author Norman Lewis portrayed him in his book The Honoured Society.
Tall, portly; face-vino red, black hair brushed straight back from a high forehead. In a suit. Dark, conservative colour; white shirt, Masonic tie.
Walking the cobbled street away from his hospital, Ospedale dei Bianchi, on the Piazza Annunziata, up passed the Café Alaimo and the barber shop where Vito Ciancimino would work Saturdays to help out his father, down towards Piazza Garibaldi, the shadow of Chiesa Di San Martino, the Mother Church of Corleone, seven hundred years and counting, shimmering across the paved square.
It was a town lost on an island that itself seems to have been the place where time stood still. The streets were dirty and clogged with traffic, filled with aimlessly wandering unemployed youth; crowded with bins overflowing with uncollected garbage, a rejected town park, roads pitted with potholes, abandoned renovation work on old monuments and main thoroughfares.
Sixty years later, nothing seemed to have changed according to Dino Paternostro. In his Corleone blog dated November 29th 2009, he used almost the same words to convey the same bleak picture.
In Corleone, in 1948, the hopeless lived their execrable existence as they always did, generation after generation. All they had to cling to, as one writer of the time recorded, was a belief in an insane collection of primitive magic and mumbo jumbo, with cadavers resurrecting and walking around with holes in them, lepers healing miraculously and the blind suddenly seeing; virgins giving birth and talking snakes. Something to celebrate every Sunday in one of the one hundred churches that filled the town with their sound of music and canonical cadence.
According to Norman Lewis, the town was overflowing with people dressed in black, with dark eyes, speaking in low voices, using gestures of resignation.
Corleone wore its misery like a threadbare suit.
Families often shared their homes with their animals-goats, sheep, mules and hens which they needed to protect from thieves who roamed the streets at night. Bakers made their loaves in the same area in which they sheltered their livestock. Milk and cheese was un-pasteurized so reeked of harmful microbes and bacteria.
Doctor Navarra, hands clapping gently as if in time to music, as was his habit when he got excited, making his point to the man walking alongside him, maybe one pace behind. In deference to his boss, or to place him better to stab the good doctor in the back-metaphorically at least. Something he no doubt dreamed about.
Luciano Leggio, twenty-three and already a seasoned killer, having shot dead his first victim at the age of twenty and his second, a month after the first. And more after that. He had started his career of crime as a cattle thief working with a notorious band of local rustlers headed by the dreaded Francesco Barbacia.
Known in the town as a picciotto di facatu, a young man of guts, Leggio had become at twenty, the youngest estate manager in Sicily after killing the campiere or guard of feudo Corrado Caruso, Stanislao Punzo, in April, 1945.
In the world of Sicilian organized crime he was a phenom without peer.
Small, frail, skin white as alabaster; malformed since a child, his chest strapped in wood and plaster; loose-lipped, a dandified young man with always a hint of a smirk and something of a squint, limping along in the shadow of his towering master of the universe who referred to him in the third person as u immu, the hunchback.
Ten years into the future, Leggio (left), a man who was a dog with no master, would do more than knife him in the back. That rainy day in August 1958 would see the parting of the ways, not just for the Mafia medicine man and Leggio’s gang of ruffians, led by Giuseppe Ruffino, who would fill Navarra full of bullet holes, but a whole way of life that would vanish in the morning haze as the hot sun of change came to burn a new law of the land across Sicily’s Mafia landscape.
Twenty years into the future and Leggio would parade around Palermo in linen suits and Panama hats. Drive everywhere in the latest Mercedes. Eat at the best restaurants. The world at his feet. The new master of the universe.
‘This Rizzotto,’ the doctor talking in his high-pitched, sing-song voice, ‘he’s becoming a pile in my anus. He’s giving me sleepless nights. Causing trouble for all of us. He gets his way, every lump in town will become land-owners. I mean. Can you possible see that happening? Of course not.’
The lugubrious doctor no doubt believed that the best thing you could do for the poor was not be one of them.
They walk on, the afternoon sun falling behind the houses, clinging to each other like nuns lost in a bar.
Navarra’s urge to eliminate the threat Rizzotto offered was almost defined by his DNA. His father and uncle had both been implicated in the murder in November 1915 of Bernadino Verro, Corleone’s first socialist mayor, and a founder of a worker’s socialist movement.
‘He thinks he’s meeting me off the last bus from Palermo, Wednesday night. I won’t be there. Make sure you sort it.’
And Leggio, looking up at his satrap, would no doubt have replied:
Bacio le mani. ’I kiss your hand.’
Or something like this. Then, he would have sloped off to make his plans for that night.
As he stalks away into the crowded streets, he passes a woman. Tall and slim, nearing thirty. Black hair brushed back off a handsome face. Dresses in black. Something Arcadian about the turn of her head. He nods at her. She maybe lifts a hand in greeting, then they are gone their separate ways into the confusion of the crowds.
Leoluchina Sorisi. She will have her own special place in this story. In a mystery to match the main event, she will play a minor though important role in the conundrum of Placido Rizzotto before she exits stage left.
She steps to one side as a man rides by on a mule. A boy, maybe thirteen or so sits behind him, clutching the man around the waist. Giuseppe Letizia, and son, also Giuseppe, off to the Malvello estate to check on the work they need to do for tomorrow on their plot of land. The son soon to be part of history and Mafia lore.
They jog up the street, past the square and a group of men standing, smoking, a tight circle of intrigue and belligerence. In among the crowd, Vincenzo Collura is arguing with Pasquale Criscione and Giuseppe Ruffino about some unfinished business. They are part of Navarra’s pack, men working the land by day and looking for opportunities by night.
Major actors in the drama to come.
They could all be players in the Opera dei Pupi, the Sicilian Puppet Theatre, exquisitely crafted props and figures waiting for the drama to begin. Mystery, intrigue and treachery in portions big enough to satisfy any trencherman feasting off a diet of death and dishonour. They will all be part of this story in one way or another.
Michele Navarra was a doctor of medicine, inspector of health for Corleone commune, President of The Cutivator’s
Association of Corleone, medical advisor to the State Railways, head of the hospital, mayor of the town and for some years, leader of the Corleone branch of the Honoured Society. A political animal to the soles of his shoes, he was also the local leader of the Christian Democratic Party and an avid enemy of the Italian Communist League which had thrown its weight behind the labour unions in their struggle to achieve better pay and conditions for the serfs who toiled on the vast estates for ten or sometimes fifteen hours a day.
He saw in Placido Rizzotto a giant threat to his position as a major player in the town and the region it commanded, and he also hated the young secretary of the Corleone Chamber of Labour on a personal basis.
Navarra was a vain and egotistical man, and collected titles in a way that also indicated an obsessive personality. He desperately wanted to become a credited member of the Corleone Seizione Combattenti the returned services club. Rizzotto was secretary of the branch and had refused him membership. It irked the doctor and he never forgave Rizzotto for the insult.
Luciano Leggio, Navarra’s pit bull, and a homicidal killer on his good days, also hated Placido Rizzotto, not because he bothered the doctor, but because he had fallen victim himself to the labour leader’s strength of character and physical strength as well.
In February 1948, a rally organized by the labour movement in Corleone turned nasty when Navarra’s men attacked the parade. In the scuffling and fighting that ensued, Placido Rizzotto had grabbed Leggio and hung him from an iron railing of the municipal gardens by his jacket, leaving the mobster struggling like a landed fish. To Leggio, this was an unpardonable insult. One that had to be answered one day. Doctor Navarra had provided him with that opportunity. He also hated Rizzotto who was a vigorous opponent of the Mafia’s trade in stolen cattle and had been pressing for the expropriation of the land that Leggio had assumed control of-Feudo Strasatto.
And so it came to pass.
Participating in the Resistance Movement during the Second World War profoundly changed Placido Rizzotto (left). On his return to the town where he had been born in 1914, he could not willingly accept the reality of a Corleone where a few landlords controlled such vast estates, using the Mafia to subvert the many casual farmers and farm labourers living in poverty. During the war years he had developed a strong social conscience and would not accept the injustices that he saw happening in the community or tolerate the appropriation of land by the Mafia and the recruitment of workers often only for nepotistic reasons.
He joined the Confederation of Italian General Labour (CGIL) the oldest union organization in Italy, founded in 1906, and began coordinating workers to overcome their fears and stand up against tyrannical land owners and estate managers. He led them into land occupation marches, fighting for their rights under Legislative Decree No. 279 of October 1944 sponsored by the Communist Minister of Agricultre, Fausto Gullo. A reformation of the agrarian laws that guaranteed tenant-farms at least 50% of their agricultural production and permission to occupy land under certain criteria, it was a way that promised thousands a chance out of poverty.
This activity resulted in many clashes between land owners and workers. Placido Rizzotto became a nuisance and an irritant to Doctor Michele Navarra. He would become a problem that needed removing, as in the Mafia slang expression for revenge:
Livarisi na petra di la scapa: To take a stone out of one’s shoe.
That Wednesday evening, March 10th, Placido returned from his office to his parents’ home where he still lived, about 7:30 PM, and told them after changing into a heavy overcoat that he was going out for a while and would see them later. He never returned.
The stone was removed forever.
Based on testimony from one of his abductors, Vincenzo Collura, and the recollections of an eyewitness fifty years later, Placido’s last evening on earth started out when he met up with two old friends, Ludovico Benigno and Giuseppe Siragusa.
(Note: Vincenzo Collura was the son of Vincenzo senior, an important man in the Corleone cosca. Known in the town as ‘Mr Vincent, the American’ he had had left Corleone during the fascist purge of the island’s Mafia under Cesare Mori, establishing himself in New York where he became a good friend of Joe Profaci, a Brooklyn-based mob boss and best man at the wedding of his close amici Frank ‘Three Fingers’ Coppola. A diminutive narcotic trafficker on an international scale, he had also fled Sicily in the 1920s to escape the fascist Mafia crack-down, and moved back to Sicily in 1948. Collura himself, had returned earlier in 1943, with the ambition of taking over the Corleone Mafia, then ruled by Don Calogero Lo Bue, his uncle, and godfather, since 1924. Legend has it that he was sponsored for the position by none other than infamous New York Mafioso, Charley Luciano, then languishing in a New York State penitentiary.
Whatever clout Charley wielded, the end result was Doctor Navarra became the boss and Collura had to make do with control of what was known as ‘lower Corleone.’ But he was always one step behind, and no doubt hated every moment he had to walk in the doctor’s shadow. Strong as Collura’s pedigree was, it was trumped by Navarra whose mother’s brother, Michelangelo Gennaro, had ruled the town’s Mafia until his death in 1924 when it had become the fiefdom of Lo Bue.
Another Collura son, Filippo, was shot dead by unknown gunmen in 1951, and in 1957, Vincenzo senior himself became a victim of the politics of cosa nostra. On the evening of February 24th, he himself, was shot dead by a posse of gunmen, maybe as many as six, including the ubiquitous Giuseppe Ruffino, outside a house in Via Sant’ Agostino, a literal stone’s throw from the main town square, Piazza Garibaldi.)
The three men strolled along the darkening footpaths, part of the daily La Passeggiata (the Italian cultural phenomena when entire towns wander the streets to meet and gossip) to the Café Alaimo and there in due course were joined by Pasqule Criscione. A gabelloto (estate manager) on the Drago Estate, he was an old friend of Placido. They lived in the same street, across from each other, and had been childhood friends, going to the same school.
Placido was marking time until the arrival of Dr. Navarra. He had arranged to meet him on his arrival from Palermo later that night. There was a problem involving lists of workers that needed clarifying in connection with Navarra’s duties as medical officer of health for the area.
After coffee, someone no doubt said, andiamo a fare qualche vasca, or ‘let's go do some laps,’ and the men wandered up the main thoroughfare, Via Bentivegna, leaving Benigno near the New Bridge, to make his way home, and saying goodnight to Siragusa.
Then, the two men, turned back up the street, moving through the crowds near the café where Leggio was now waiting. He followed the men as they walked past the Piazza Garibaldi and moved north up into the town. As they strolled into Via Marsala and away from the noise and activity of the main road, Leggio caught up with them. He produced a pistol and motioned Rizzotto further up the narrow street to where Vincenzo Collura waited.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said to Placido, ‘we are just going to have a ragionamento.’
In the Mafia, this kind of discussion can often end in death. No doubt Rizzotto looked into the baleful face of his enemy, half hidden by a coppola, the traditional Sicilian flat cap, and was very afraid.
At about this time, an eyewitness, known only as Luca, who recalled his memory of that night for the newspaper La Sicilia, in 2005, claimed he heard Rizzotto shouting ‘That’s enough, let me go,’ as he was bundled into a Fiat 1100, parked outside the Church of San Leonardo.
The car drove off into the night, and Placido Rizzotto was gone. Other people had obviously witnessed the sad Gethsemane of events. Eyes averted. Door closed. Lights shuttered to what was happening. Another bystander according to Danilo Dolice, the famous social activist, was claimed to have said, ’He was our hero and we let him go. All we had to do, each of us, was pick up a stone, a stone from the street, and we’d have been too much for them.’
He was one of many such men murdered by the Mafia in Sicily in the late 1940s.
The media called it negli anni della strage dei sindacalisti: the years they massacred the trade unionists
On May 8th 1947 in Partinico, gunmen shot-gunned to death Michelangelo Salvia. A month later, a group of men machine-gunned Giuseppe Casarrubea and Vincenzo Lo Jacono as they sat talking on a bench outside a union office. A week before the murder of Rizzotto, two men of the Mafia walked up to Epifanio Li Puma as he worked on his small-holding near Petulia Soprano, and fired shotguns into his body, killing him instantly.
Mafia heads across the island would not tolerate interference in their affairs, which in this period were almost entirely linked into the latifundia, the huge, sprawling estates originally created by the Romans as food banks for their military legions busy conquering half the known world.
In Sicily, by the 19th Century, the seigneurial concept was land divided into huge states, called feudo owned by barons and other nobility. They were sometimes referred to in the 19th century as guanti gialli-yellow gloves, a term which came to be used to describe the men they hired-the Mafia in yellow gloves. They owned three-quarters of the villages on the island. As these owners mostly lived in Naples or Palermo, they sublet their properties to tenants known as gabelloti who managed the lands on their behalf. Many historians believe the original Mafia evolved from these men who not only controlled the land, but policed it as well.
It was some years before the DNA of cosa nostra replicated from the countryside into the cities, particularly Palermo. Parasitical Mafia structures had weighed down Western Sicily for generations, feeding mainly on rural life and its economic activities.
Following the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Christian Democratic Party emerged as a major political force in Italy essentially through a devil’s pact with the Mafia on the island: economic patronage and immunity in exchange for votes. The party would stay close to the Mafia throughout its existence, and would in essence die, when the Mafia discarded it.
Although there had always been Mafia clans in the major urban districts of Western Sicily, prior to the 1960s, their power had come from control of produce or natural resources from the land, especially the fruit growing areas around the metropolitan area of west and south Palermo, and profits from smuggling, mainly cigarettes, cattle rustling and extortion. The rolling urbanization of the Mafia did not emerge until about the time Luciano Leggio started stamping his footprint on the honoured society, helping drive its greed and resources into drugs, and the control of state-backed construction projects and kidnapping.
The real bosses of the estates, (not the absent estate owners,) men like Michele Navarra, Vanni Sacco, Vincenzo Rimi, Giuseppe Genco Russo, Salvatore Malta, Serafino Di Peri, Salvatore Celeste, Ludovico Corrao and Domenico Albano, who used their control of voting power to ensure the Christian Democratic party a majority in Rome and through this block land reform and corrupt the bureaucrats running agricultural and irrigation bodies, guarded their fiefdoms and the wealth it provided them with a passionate autarchy that would allow no interference from anyone, let alone radical labour activists like Placido Rizzotto and his peers. So when they got too close to the truth or started to make waves, they were killed.
The Mafia’s way of protecting itself.
The kidnapping and killing of Placido Rizzotto was one of the most seminal events in the history of Corleone. Part of this Mafia conspiracy to control the land and the wealth it created, it became in due course, part of the myth and legend of Sicily‘s fight against the Mafia.
The murder has been re-told many times over the years.
He was tortured. He was hanged from a tree. He was clubbed to death. He was shot. His body was hacked into pieces. He was chained, and alive, thrown into a pit in the mountains. To this day it is impossible to know with certainty just what happened that cold night in March, 1948.
Two of the alleged conspirators in his kidnapping eventually confessed to their part in the crime. It came about this way:
Taken off the street that night, he was driven into the countryside, to a disused farmhouse or building of some sort, and there shot dead by Leggio. That is story number one.
Story number two relates he was driven from town into the countryside, but in a different direction, south and then east, and then Criscione, Collura and Leggio dragged him up into the mountain country, and there, Leggio shot him dead. Or hanged him from a tree. Or beat him to death.
He was killed because he represented a threat to the balance of power in Corleone.
He was killed because powerful people hated him.
He was killed because Leggio lusted after his girlfriend-Leolucina Sorisi.
Whatever the scenario for the killing, the body was then dumped down a fifty metre plus crevice on the slopes of Monte Casale leading up to Rocca Busambra, the highest mountain peak in Western Sicily.
And there it might have ended, except for two men, determined to see justice done. One had been part of the Corleone Mafia and one was an officer in the carabinieri (military police) who would soon be posted to the town.
Carmelo, the father of Placido, knew something was wrong when his son failed to return home by Thursday morning. With his son-in-law, Giuseppe Di Palermo, he went searching the town at dawn.
They checked the union office, then visited the home of Peppino Siragusa to see if perhaps he had stayed with him overnight. He hadn’t. Siragusa said he had last seen his friend walking off into the night with Pasquale Criscione.
On hearing this, Carmelo (right), who knew full well that Criscione was a Mafioso in the Corleone cosca or clan, became fearful for the safety of his son, but kept on searching. They went to the home of Ludovico Benigno who also could not help them.
The two men went to the railway station and checked around, just in case Placido had decided to go to Palermo for some reason. When that drew a blank, they scoured the rest of the town, travelling as far away as Lecara Fridi, 43 kilometres to the south-east, again without success. No one had seen or heard from Placido since Wednesday night.
Carmelo Rizzotto then did something totally unexpected. For a man of the Mafia. He went to the police station overlooking Piazza Vittorio Emanuel III and reported his son missing. He gave to the officer in charge of the carabinieri, names of possible suspects in the disappearance of his son.
Then, and later, he offered up those he was sure were involved. He knew the Mafia from the inside. From the belly of the beast itself. He was one of the thousands arrested during the purge of the Mafia by Cesare Mori in December 1926, serving five years in Ucciardone Prison in Palermo. He had been brought in chains along with more than fifty other men, twenty-two years before, to the very square where the carabinieri barracks stands, and shipped by bus into Palermo for trial and imprisonment
He laid down Luciano Leggio and Collura and Criscione and Leoluca Benigno and Pietro Lisotta and Antonio Maiuri. He was sure that Giuseppe Ruffino was in there somewhere and believed behind the disappearance of his son at the highest level, were Leonardo La Torre and Marcello Mancuso and Antonio Di Palermo and sitting right at the head of the bunch, Doctor Navarra. All Mafiosi. All members of the Italian Separatist Party.
In addition, in something that was almost medieval in its concept, he stood one day on the balcony of his home and denounced to the people in the street who the killers of his son were.
But nothing came of it, until the following summer.
On September 3rd, 1949, Captain Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa (left) was transferred into Corleone to head up Commando Fortze di Repressione del Banditisimo (CFRB) a unit of the carabinieri created on August 23rd to crackdown on banditry and lawlessness in the region. He was appointed Chief of Staff to Colonel Ugo Luca, head of the command, which had other branches in Alcamo and Montelepre the hunting ground of the command‘s major target-Salvatore Guiliano-and his band of outlaws and killers.
One of the sixty cold-case files involving seventy-four murders of farmers and labourers who had participated in the land reform movement he inherited from his predecessor, was Placido Rizzotto.
The previous officer in charge of the Rizzotto case had by April 3rd 1949 identified Luciano Leggio, Criscione and Collura, along with Leoluca Benigno and Giovanni Leggio as potential suspects. There had however, been insufficient hard evidence to hold them for a prosecutorial investigation.
The captain called in Carmelo to his office at the carabinieri barracks in town, and told him he intended to find out what had happened to his son. One soldier looking after another. Dalla Chiesa had served in the Second World War as an officer in the Italian army.
The captain knew full well that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of its absence.
He started digging and found articles written by Franco Ferna, published on March 21st and 26th 1948, in La Voce della Sicilia newspaper claiming Luciano Leggio as an active participant in the kidnapping and disappearance of the young trade unionist, and that Leggio had escaped capture by law enforcement investigators only because of the help of carabinieri tenete (lieutenant) Filippo Chiofalo.
This information had been passed by letter in 1948 to Girolamo Li Causi, the communist leader and senator, and also confirmed that Chiofalo was close to the Greco Mafia clan of Ciaculli in Palermo. It’s boss Salvatore ‘Little Bird’ Greco and Navarra were business partners.
Leggio was summoned to appear before the board of the Sicilian Provincial Commission on November 5th to receive a sentence of banishment, but of course did not appear.
This subversive action by a high ranking officer of the military police is one of many mysteries that involve the kidnapping and killing of Placido Rizzotto.
Another concerns Giovanni Pasqua.
A close, boyhood friend of Leggio, in 1949, he was imprisoned in Ucciardone, awaiting trial for the murders in 1945 of security guard Calogero Comiammi and in 1947, of Giovanni Ognibene, Giovanni Palazzolo and Calogero Castelli.
For some reason never disclosed (although remittance or leniency in the prison term he faced was no doubt a factor) he informed the prison governor that he had evidence in the matter of Placido Rizzotto’s disappearance. The prison authorities contacted the Palermo police who in turn sent a message to Captain Dalla Chiesa in Corleone on November 30th.
By the time he received the report, his own investigation had narrowed the field of suspects to Leggio, Criscione, Collura, Francesco Paolo and Biagio Cutropia who lived at Via Discesa Oddo, 35. A police raid on the house unearthed a trap door, covered in ceramic tiles, leading to a hiding place, believed to be one of many used by Leggio across Corleone.
Pasqua named Leggio, Criscione and Collura as the killers of Placido Rizzotto and Dalla Chiesa moved to arrest his suspects. On December 4th 1949, Collura and Criscione were taken into custody. Two days later, the men were moved under escort to the carabinieri barracks at Bisaquino, twenty kilometres to the south of Corleone. There, along with Biagio Cutropia, they were interviewed by Dalla Chiesa, accompanied by brigadiare (sergeant) Capizzi and carabinieri Ribezzo.
In the fifty pages of testimony, titled Rapporto Dalla Chiesa, they confessed to the kidnapping, but not the killing of their victim. Collura and Criscione were charged along with Leggio for kidnapping and murder and Cutropia with aiding and abetting criminals. The report was forwarded to the Department of Justice in Palermo on December 18th. By then, something that might have been Placido Rizzotto had been found.
On December 6th, Collura had led Captain Dalla Chiesa and a search party up to the Rocca Busambra and disclosed the ciacca, a slit in the granite flank of the mountain where he believed the body of Rizzotto had been dumped. Two days later, on a cold and misty morning, the search party returned with equipment, lowering into the hole, police officer Orlando Notari who was able to recover skeletal remains and items of clothing. Two sacks of death’s detritus including a 10 centesimi coin that had a minted date indicating it had lain in the hole since around 1925.
The foiba (a natural opening that leads into a cave) was obviously a burial ground for the Mafia. Some of the bones were subsequently identified as belonging to Leoluca Mancuso who had disappeared in July 1946.
Others had also vanished, like Michelangele Randisio along with Capra and Saporita and Angelo Gullotta and who knows who else? It would not be until 1994 that the remains of the eleven other victims, including Rizzotto, would finally be excavated for DNA analysis, nine years after the scientific procedure had been introduced into criminal law.
When Dalla Chiesa presented the remains into the Corleone Court as evidence and insisted another more detailed search be made, the town magistrate, Bernardo Di Miceli, claimed it was insufficient to warrant the budgeted expense of the excavation: Lira 1.75 million (about US$3200 at this time.) So nothing happened.
Di Miceli was the first cousin of Navarra and long regarded in the town as part of ‘the brotherhood.’
Vincenzo Collura and Pasquale Criscione were committed for trial to Palermo. Leggio was part of the indictment, but he was nowhere to be found. The two men then claimed that their confession had been forced out of them by police brutality. On December 30th 1952 they and Cutropia were found not guilty on all charges by Judge Gianfrida. July 11th 1959, an appeals court decision confirmed their innocence, and finally on May 26th 1961 the decision was upheld by the Italian Supreme Court.
Acquittal for lack of evidence was the result of hundreds of Mafia trials across Sicily dating back to the murder of the Director General of the Banco di Sicilia, Emanuele Notarbartolo, in 1893.
The three suspects had been defended by the four best criminal defence lawyers in Sicily: Dino Canzoneri, Girolamo Bellavista, Tommaso Romano and Giovanni Ruvolo. They were no doubt the most expensive to hire as well.
Someone paid the bills.
On July 2nd 1971 the Italian Anti Mafia Parliamentary Relations Commission had harsh words for the entire judiciary inquiry in the disappearance of Placido Rizzotto, casting strong doubts on the conduct of the courts and some of the police investigations.
Heading the public prosecutor’s office in Palermo at this time was Pietro Scaglione. The man who was instrumental in releasing Leggio from the criminal charges involving Rizzotto, was himself gunned down by the Mafia in May 1971. Many sources point to Leggio as being one of his killers.
Following the final decision by the courts, the mystery of the missing trade unionist drifted slowly into the pages of history and myth. From time to time there was a fresh burst of interest in the case, but as always, apathy superseded enthusiasm.
Nothing was really happening as the cumbersome and lethargic bureaucracy of the Italian court system trundled along at its own snail’s pace. The remains recovered in 1949 went missing and no one seemed to care where they might lie within the dusty archives in Rome.
The mystery of the location of Placido Rizzotto’s remains lay hidden in plain sight for over sixty years. It was as though his death and disappearance had somehow migrated from the reality of life and become part of The Voynich Manuscript, the world’s most mysterious document. Everything laid out to see and understand, but no one able to interpret the mysterious messages and images that lay upon its pages.
Everyone in Corleone knew he was buried near the town, but no one could understand why the authorities were not prepared to look in the most obvious place: the crack on the flanks of the Rocca Busambra where human and other remains had been discovered in 1949.
In 2009, after much agitation and constant pressure by the CGIL, the office of the Public Prosecutor of Palermo authorized the Commissioner of Police to carry out a further and detailed search for the remains of Placido Rizzotto.
Led by Giuseppe Meredino, ten fire-fighters of the Palermo del Nucleo SAF (caving and river search specialists) carried out a survey and analysis of the possible cave area between June 17th and July 7th 2009. Men were lowered into the hole. The foiba was approximately two metres wide and one hundred deep. They found bones and these were shipped into Palermo for examination in the police forensic laboratory.
One of the fire-fighters remarked after emerging from his shift, ‘I had the impression Placido wanted to be found. For sixty-one years he’d been clinging to the slippery walls of this ravine, resisting the rain and the weather. He seemed like he was waiting…..’
In 2012, investigators and forensic specialists descended on the Corleone Cemetery. They were there to exhume a body for DNA testing. Permission had been granted by the relatives of Placido Rizzotto to allow the remains of Carmelo, the father, exhumed for testing. It was a tricky job for the scientists as Placido’s mother had also been buried in the same grave and the years of natural decay had intermingled the bones.
Carmelo had died in 1969 without ever seeing justice done for his son. The tests, concluded on March 12th, confirmed that the bones found in September 2009 were indeed those of Placido Rizzotto.
There was yet another person of mystery in the story of Placido Rizzotto.
Apart from the town spectators who witnessed the kidnapping, and the men who abducted him and the man who killed him, and the man who informed on the man who killed him, and the man who helped the man who killed him get away, there was another involved: a boy. A thirteen-year old boy called Giuseppe Letizia.
A watcher in the rye.
The generally accepted story handed down over the last sixty-five years claims he was herding a flock of sheep on the Malvello Estate, a vast land tract that lay to the north of Corleone, between the town and San Giuseppe Jato. On the night Placido Rizzotto died, Letizia was sheltering in an abandoned farmhouse on Malvello. He witnessed a group of men approach the building, dragging with them another man. As he crouched, hidden, somewhere in a dark corner perhaps, he saw a confrontation between this group, then one man produce a gun and shoot another, multiple times. The men then carried the body back outside, leaving the boy huddled in shock.
When his father arrived the next morning, he found his distraught son, and rushed him back to Corleone. The family was attended to by Doctor Michael Navarra, who was not only the head of the town hospital, but also of course, the head of the town’s Mafia. When Navarra learned of the young boy’s astonishing claims, he administered an injection, ostensibly to calm him, while attending the boy in the hospital, but it was designed in fact to kill him, which it did.
There was some logic in Leggio taking Rizzotto to the Malvello Estate, as it’s gabelloto was Giuseppe Ruffino, the close ally of Leggio, who in theory should have guaranteed his friend a high degree of security, although he was obviously unaware that the young boy Letizia was using the selected killing ground for sanctuary that night.
In reality, Giuseppe Letizia was taken by his father to his home on the morning of March 11th. He had also, not been sheep herding.
According to evidence produced many years later, by a relative of the family, Giuseppe Letizia senior was in fact a farmer not a shepherd and his son had been guarding two mules that night at the disused farmhouse.
The boy was never taken to the Corleone hospital, but brought back to Via Arena 36, where he had been born, November 4th 1935 to Giuseppe and Anna Carolla. The house stands there to this day on the south-west side of the town.
The family called in their doctor, Ignazio Dell ‘Aria, who had only recently opened his practice, and he then asked Navarra for a second opinion. The fatal injection was administered by the doctors in the house, not at the hospital, but either way, young Giuseppe was dead by one in the afternoon of Sunday, March 14th. The death certificate said ‘toxicoses.’
The burial permit from the cemetery of March 15th confirms his death at home, not the hospital of Corleone.
He was coming into his thirteenth year.
He was buried the next day, a simple wooden cross with a plate bearing the inscription ’G.L.’ being the only marker to his resting place. Many years later, his grave and others in this part of the cemetery, were unearthed and all the remains buried in a common ossuary. It seemed as though the Mafia were trying their best to eradicate the only witness to the killing of Placido Rizzotto in the same way they had successfully vanished their victim.
Dell ‘Aria distraught in the way he had participated in legalised murder, closed his practice and immigrated to Australia. And there it might well have remained, except for the tenacity of two newspapers that found a story, and like a dog with a bone, wouldn’t let it go.
On March 13th, L’Unita, one of Italy’s major daily newspapers, published an article that claimed, ’There was reason to believe that the child (Giuseppe Letizia) had been an involuntary witness to the killing of Rizzotto and that the boy had died.’ He hadn’t of course. That would not be until the next day.
This was followed on March 21st by La Voce della Sicilia, the Communist sponsored newspaper based in Palermo, reporting that Rizzotto had been kidnapped and murdered on the feudo Malvello. A follow-up article on March 26th referred to Luciano Leggio as the main suspect who had escaped capture by the police on the 16th. It claimed that investigators of the carabinieri had determined a kidnapping and killing probably had taken place and that they were seeking Leggio, Pasquale Criscione, Biagio Criscione, Leoluca Benigno and Giovanni Leggio.
So, less than two weeks after that fateful night, it appeared everybody knew what had happened. They knew who had been involved, or at least some of the people, and they knew that the unsuspecting young boy Letizia, had been dispatched by the town’s medical officer of health for whatever reason.
Small town gossip never worked harder than that week in March 1948.
Doctor Navarra was arrested by the police on April 13th. After all the disclosures in the newspapers, it was hardly likely he would not be bothered by the law.
With no hard evidence linking him into the two crimes, the head of the Corleone carabinieri, Colonel Alfredo Angisani, nevertheless recommended that Navarra be sent into compulsory internal exile for five years to Gioiosa Ionica, a town and commune on the east coast of Calabria.
On November 12th, the doctor packed his bags and went off on his journey. His exile however, was more of a sabbatical from his daily criminal activities than a punishment. He was back in Corleone within six months.
In Calabria, forming one of the first partnerships between the Sicilian Mafia and mainland organized crime, he established a tight relationship with charismatic ‘ndrangheta boss Antonio Macri who as capobastone, headed up his own ‘ndrine, or family mob clan, in Siderno. This equanimous marriage of criminal fraternities was confirmed by pentito Giacomo Lauro.
On the death of Navarra, Macri maintained close ties with Sicily through Luciano Leggio and the Greco family of Ciaculli. He also had links into infamous New York Mafiosi Frank Costello, and Albert Anastasia who had both been born in Calabria.
If, in his confession to Dalla Chiesa, Vincenzo Collura was telling the truth, then Giuseppe Letizia could not have seen the murder of Placido Rizzotto. Does this mean he witnessed on the same night another Mafia killing?
It may well have been, as historian Giuseppe Cassarubea claims ‘the randomness of extraordinary coincidence.’
So, did the thirteen-year boy die for witnessing the death of another victim orchestrated by Michele Navarra? The Mafia often carried out their punitive work between 1943 and 1948 at night. It’s therefore more than possible, this is what may have happened.
Like a thread in search of a needle she winds her way through this story.
She was twenty-eight when we first learned about her in 1948. A woman at the heart of a big mystery in a small town in Sicily. A friend, a girlfriend, a lover, but of who?
Sixteen years later, she made the headlines in the world’s press for the second time.
On both occasions, her name was linked into two men who were inextricably connected by fate and circumstance. One a murderer and one his victim.
One, a man she was believed to be engaged to, was trying hard with fervour and passion, to right wrongs and help people; the other was a hardened killer, a man driven by his own passions and demons who would go on to become an internationally known figure in the field of crime. A man who murdered the head of the Mafia family in Corleone, and then assumed its leadership in 1958 while a fugitive from justice, hunted by the law not only in his hometown, but across Sicily and Italy.
In 1964, Luciano Leggio, the second man, was arrested at eleven on a Thursday evening by the police, in of all places, Corleone. He was captured in an act of supreme irony, in the very house where he would never, logically, have ever been able to find shelter.
It was the home of Leoluchina Sorisi and her sister, Maria Grazia, situated in the Cortile (courtyard) Mangiameli, off number six Via Orsini, just over the new bridge and only a few hundred metres from the state police barracks. It was believed at this time that Leggio was engaged to Leoluchina. Almost twenty years before, she had sworn she would tear out the heart of the man who had murdered her then fiancé, Plazido Rizzotto, who had undoubtedly been murdered by Leggio on that evening in March, 1948.
It was a strange, convoluted story that had been handed down through the memories of families of the town for almost twenty years (Read the story La Primula Rossa)
On the night of May 14th, 1964, one report states that she stroked his hair and wept for him as the officers of the law removed him from his bed and escorted him down the staircase to the street. Another version claims she simply stood there, her eyes lowered in shame.
Leggio was laid up and resting with an attack of Pott’s Disease (Tuberculosis Spondylitis) a degenerative disease of the spine that had bothered him since he was a child. It is one of the oldest demonstrated diseases of humankind, having been documented in spinal remains from the Iron Age and in ancient mummies from Egypt and Peru. In 1779, Percivall Pott, for whom Pott’s disease is named, presented to the medical world the classic description of what we now know as spinal tuberculosis.
Although on the run and suffering this disabling illness, and wanted by the police for almost sixteen years, Luciano Leggio had moved freely in and around the town for six months since his arrival in November 1963. He had been noted by the state police on at least two occasions driving in a car around Corleone, but no attempt had been made to apprehend him until that night.
Those in the town who knew the principal players in this little drama wondered about this seemingly strange relationship existing between two people who theoretically were as far apart as the North and South Poles.
And it remained a mystery until 2005.
In 1964 however, the town was trembling with gossip as stories circulated the streets and bars and cafes, ricocheting from one unbelievable hypothesis to another:
Angelo Mangano, the state police honcho, transferred to Corleone on November 16th 1963, had been tipped off that the infamous Mafioso Leggio was in town, by two informants, brothers Carlo and Alberto Ancona, who subsequently died violent and mysterious deaths. Mangano set up a special ’Get Leggio’ squad lead by Sergeant Biagio Melita, along with officers Accordino da Rindaro and Giovanni Ciocia.
Colonel Milillo of the carabinieri (who had set up his own task force to catch Leggio, based in the provincial headquarters of the military police in Via Mura San Vito, Palermo,) had twice tried in September 1963, to arrest Leggio, based on an informant’s evidence, raiding the Clinic Albanese in Palermo, where he was supposed to be a patient having treatment for his back ailment.
Leggio was in fact a patient at the Ospizio Marino Enrico Albanese, a different branch of the same hospital, further down the same road, but when the police finally locked into this address, they found their suspect had already left.
He moved in with a furniture remover called Francesco Paolo Marino, and stayed with him at his home in the Palermo suburb of Ciaculli, prior to shifting his base of operations into Corleone.
After the capture, Milillo admitted, ‘We’d thought of everything but not that. How did he manage to get on the right side of that woman who had been wearing mourning for years because of him.’
Mangano had been sent into the heartland of the Mafia not to arrest Leggio, but to protect him. He knew too much. Was dangerous not only to the other gangsters and killers that moved in his shadow across Sicily, but also to important people, politicians, landed gentry and men of power such as Vito Ciancimino, the son of the barber of Corleone, the corrupt and venal public works assessor, for Palermo City, and the mayor of Palermo, Salvo Lima, who was so crooked he needed servants to screw on his pants every morning.
Ciancimino had been born and grew up in Corleone, where his father had worked as a barber. A friend of Leggio, he had been in fact the only man ever to strike him to the ground and live to talk about it. He was, according to Tommaso Buscetta, (arguably the most famous Sicilian Mafia informant of all,) an organic part of the Corleone clan. He drove The Sack of Palermo which saw half of the old city destroyed to be replaced by monstrous concrete apartments built by contractors soaked in Mafia graft and complicity.
Mangano was sent to Corleone to prevent the capture of Leggio by the carabineri command under the control of Colonel Milillio. But why? Even the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission wondered on this without reaching a conclusion.
There was the link between Sicily’s state police head, Dr. Angelo Vicari who had sent Mangano to Corleone, and the confusing conundrum of bandit Salvatore Giuliano, and the Portella della Ginestra massacre in May 1947, when eleven agricultural workers were killed and over thirty injured on a mountain slope to the north of the town. An act of ultimate intimidation against the peasants fighting for land reform.
Giuliano was subsequently murdered in Castelvetrano on July 5th 1950. According to journalist Pietro Zullini, the killer was Leggio. Just who had sent him has never been ascertained with any certainty, but there seems little doubt that if not at the bottom, the Mafia were almost surely floating in there, around the middle of this other mystery which has obsessed Sicily for over sixty years.
Some researchers believe Frank Coppola was in fact the deux ex machina of the Salvatore Giuliano saga, arranging it with the help and co-operation of the powerful Trapani Mafia cosche.
Leggio was hidden on the estate of Baron Valente who employed Antonino Sbreva as his gabelloto, a man who walked in the shadow of Leggio. Colonel Milillo confirmed this in a deposition to the Anti-Mafia Commission on June 26th 1969. The baron was also close to Dr. Vicari who was Palermo Prefect from 1948 until 1953.
There were so many one-way streets and dead-ends that linked Luciano Leggio into conspiracies involving the police, the politics of Sicily and the Machiavellian convolutions of the Christian Democratic Party that maintained its power in Italy for forty-seven years to a large extent because of its control of the Sicilian vote block, guaranteed them by their Mafia associates.
As a result, the Italian State became a sclerotic and impotent entity in the presence of Mafia intimidation-a simulacra of a government lost in the trade-winds of a force beyond its control.
This was the man who was sheltered for months by a woman who had once allegedly threatened to tear him to pieces when she found out her fiancé was missing and presumed dead.
Renate Siebert in her book Secrets of Life and Death wonders: ‘There are stories of women who became lovers of a murderer with vendetta in mind. Could it be that Leoluchina was stopped before she carried out a plan of revenge?
Could it have been that she set out to know more and that then, as things went on, became attracted and dominated by the man she set out to dominate?
Or, more simply, that some dialectic of passion developed between the victim and the butcher, along the lines of Cavani’s film The Night Porter.’
But in fact, Leoluchina Sorisi was never engaged to Placido Rizzotto.
The man she was intended to was one of his killer, but it was not Leggio.
It was Pasquale Criscione.
There is little know of him, in public domain at least. Born February 2nd 1915, he worked as a gabelotto, on the vast Drago agricultural estate outside Corleone. In a town this small, everyone would know almost everyone else, and Criscione who worked the land by day and for Doctor Michele Navarra, the Mafia boss of the town by night, was a friend of Placido Rizzotto. They had been born in houses that faced each other across the street, played together and attended the same school.
At some stage, he had owned 12 acres of land, but by 1965 he was declared bankrupt, and by 1970, he was destitute. He moved to Turin in Northern Italy and disappeared into the less known pages of history, drifting around like a postcard sent to the wrong address.
General Dalla Chiesa a month before he was murdered by the Mafia, in 1982, in an interview with journalist Giorgio Bocca of La Repubblica, confirmed that both Collura and Criscione had moved to the mainland and were living in the community of Venaria Reale, near Turin, and still working for Leggio who by then (1974) was based in Milan, less than 80 miles to the east.
Leoluchina Sorisi was born in Corleone in February, 1919, to Pietro Sorisi and Giuseppina Constanza. It was a big family-five brothers and four sisters. By 1948 she was working as an elementary school teacher in the town and had formed a relationship with Pasquale Criscione.
However when she had been approached to offer him an alibi for that night in 1948, confirming he had spent it with her, she refused. Their relationship may have been as deep as the ocean, but, it was obviously not as high as the sky.
Marco Nesse in his book Nel Segno della Mafia recounts the story, most probably apocryphal, that Leggio, an illiterate, learned to read and write by forcing himself upon a schoolteacher and laying the barrel of his revolver against her breast. If the story is true, maybe he had chosen Sorisi as his educator?
When the media investigated the disappearance and obvious murder of Placido Rizzotto, the stories slowly started to circulate that Leoluchina and he were engaged, a rumour that persisted over the years, and was then rudely shattered by the events of May, 1964.
In 2005, she gave an interview to Corleone journalist, newspaper editor, and union organizer, Dino Paternostro, which threw a new light on the events that had occurred in 1948 and 1964.
She was an old woman when she sat and talked with Paternostro, in her home in Corleone.
She was obdurate that she and Placido Rizzotto were nothing more than friends, maybe not even that, perhaps just acquaintances, although he had visited the house where she lived with her parents.
The link into him was through Ludovico Benigno who was her nephew and a close friend of Placido as well as a fellow member of the Partito Socialista political party.
Simply people who lived in the same, claustrophobic town, sheltering under the dark and ominous Rocca Busambra, that would become the final resting place for the young trade unionist.
Even though she said her relationship was simply platonic, she had wondered if in fact Criscione had originally met up that night in order to explain to Rizzotto that he and Leoluchina considered themselves engaged.
She was quite adamant that she had never sworn to eat the heart of the man who killed Rizzotto. It was also alleged that Colonel Ignatius Milillo, the carabinieri police officer who had been involved in the arrest of Leggio in 1964, had inferred that Rizzotto was not killed by the Mafia to protect their interests, but that he was murdered to protect Leoluchina’s honour when Rizzotto had backed off from marrying her.
This was nonsense according to her.
Following the arrest of Leggio at her home, she had been prosecuted and sentenced to two years confinement in the Benedettine Convent on Via Marchese di Villabianca in Palermo. At the famous trial of Leggio in Bari, Calabria, in 1969, her sentenced was annulled, and she was acquitted in September 1972, on charges of aiding and criminal conspiracy.
Why did she shelter the most wanted Mafioso in Sicily?
She claimed her relative, Vincenzo Benigno, the son of Ludovico, who had been part of the group that had met with Rizzotto the night he was murdered, had been threatened with death if she did not offer shelter to Leggio. It was that simple. Hide me or I will kill your family. A common enough threat that would have been utilised by members of the Mafia whenever the situation warranted it.
State police reports of the period up to the arrest of Leggio, indicate that he was seen on a number of occasions driving in a car with Sorisi, who at this time was working as a nurse. They were spotted late one evening returning to Corleone, even though there was a curfew in place at the time, which they were breaking.
Leggio was also spotted in a car driven by his good friend and co-killer, Giuseppe Ruffino, as his children cavorted on the back seat.
And why did Luciano Leggio choose to visit Corleone for almost eight months? He had avoided police capture for sixteen years, moving freely around the island and travelling to Malta and the Italian mainland. Moving back into that small, claustrophobic town of extremes must have seemed almost an act of insanity.
Was it because of Leoluchina Sorisi? What other reason was there to bring him back?
After her time in the convent, she had decided to leave Corleone and in time, became a maid to a rich woman of noble background, in Palermo. She had then begun the life of a wanderer, moving to England then Germany and Switzerland, finally finishing up in the Italian port city of Genoa. She had worked as a waitress and in other jobs to keep herself fed and housed.
Back in Italy, she met an older man who needed companionship and nursing, and eventually married him. The marriage was short, he died just two years later. He left her well provided for.
She returned to Corleone in 2005. She was eighty-six and found living alone in a big city intimidating and frightening, although she came back to a place in the hills that she no longer recognized. The people in the town were only interested in her as a novelty, a link to a past clouded in mystery and intrigue. She even found attending church an ordeal. All she wanted was peace and quiet in her final years.
On Sunday, October 23rd, 2011, Leoluchina Sorisi died in the Corleone hospital, (the new Ospedale dei Bianchi, opened in November 2008, replacing the earlier one opened in 1958) at the age of ninety-two. In her final days she was tended by the hospital staff and her great-granddaughter, Antonella Sanzio.
It was believed that the old hospital, closed towards the end of the 1950s, was often used as a place of refuge for Mafia criminals avoiding the law, and as recently as 2009, two shotguns were found hidden in a secret compartment between the first and second floors.
Leoluchina had outlived the people who had made up the mystery of Placido Rizzotto, but the events still haunted Corleone, Sicily and Italy, as they had for so many years.
The players are now all departed, the stage is empty.
The man who committed the crime. The men who aided him. The spectators on the sidelines. The police officers who helped solve it. The evil doctor at the heart of it. The young boy who may have seen it. The woman who moved around the perimeter, obeying the law of unintended consequences.
The puppet master finally closed his shop and departed.
On May 5th 2012, they held a state funeral for Placido Rizzotto in Corleone. The town was thick with suits and pomp and colour.
As the cortege passed slowly through the narrow, cobbled streets, it was tailed by a long line of residents and unionist from all over Italy. Someone said it was time the town lost its reputation and image.
‘How long will Corleone have to live with its infamy,’ someone said.
The president of the Italian Republic himself, came to pay tribute. He presented Italy’s Medal for Civil Valour to Placido; his sister, Giuseppa, accepting the honour. The speeches were many and there were tears and moments of sadness as the remaining members of his family remembered the young, vigorous and determinedly committed union activist.
A man young in years, but still, a paladin of the working poor.
Not far from Corleone, in the rolling hills of western Sicily, there is a farming co-operative set up on land confiscated from the Mafia.
Its workers, who initially endured threats from the mob, chose to call their new vineyard after Placido Rizzotto.
Every bottle of wine that they produce bears his name.
Placido Rizzotto knew that the beauty on this earth is set aside for the enjoyment of the few and comes at the suffering of the many. Maybe he also learned in the most theistic way, how to live for a reason and die for a cause.
His remains were finally brought to lie in the cemetery. His killers, Navarra and Leggio are buried here, a few metres apart. The circle is finally complete.
The month following, The State Schools of Corleone remembered Giuseppe Letizia, awarding him a posthumous honouree diploma-secondary school-compensating him for the schooling years he never had. The award was presented to Giovanni Letizia, a grandson of the family.
The irony is that Little Joe probably had already given up school to help his hard-pressed family manage their small-holding.
Of the millions of words written about the mystery of Placido Rizzotto, perhaps the most poignant come from his father, Carmelo.
Talking to Danielo Dolci, he remembered:
‘He came to get his coat because it was cold. And I said: “Where are you going? We are having dinner in a moment.“
He said, “I’ll be back in a moment. I’m meeting the Mayor who is coming from Palermo by bus.“
This was the way he went out. He was thirty-three years and seventy days old. I waited and I waited and he never came back. He never came back…….’
What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. - Pericles
The dead have their whole lives ahead of them; it’s the absent who haunt us most. - Silence of Love.
I would like to express my thanks to Scott Deitche for his help in sourcing some of the material I used in researching this story.
And of course to Dino Paternostro current head of the Corleone branch of the CGIL, for helping to solve the mystery of the woman in black and for unearthing the many secrets long hidden about the town and the men who terrorized it for so many years.
Read all of Thom's articles and stories at his Mob Corner.
Copyright © Thom L. Jones. 2013